Friday, December 30, 2005

The top two presidents of all-time

There is just simply no way to distinguish between the top two. No matter how much I did not want to finish the presidential list in a tie, choosing between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is a bit like choosing between ribeye and porterhouse. They're both good, and you really can't lose either way. So I'll just write up the two in chronological order.

George Washington - It is difficult to relate how tenuous an experiment (of sorts) the American polity was. There had been relative calm for the decade plus between independence and the writing of the Constitution, but events like Shays Rebellion signalled that anarchy and turmoil were just around the corner. It is questionable whether or not the Constitutional Convention would have designed the office of President the way they did were it not for the liklihood that General Washington would assume the office.

It could have really gone in so many different directions. George Washington had to carefully weigh each and every decision he ever made because he knew it set the precedent for everyone who followed him. His first great accomplishment was to bring a dignified nobility to the presidency without it becoming too monarchial. He steered an even course when if he went even a little further in either direction, it would have made the Presidency either too democratic or too aristocratic.

He also managed a cabinet full of the most brilliant individuals in American history, but individuals who had very different ideas about politics. That he managed them so well, and did not allow either faction to dominate his administration is more evidence to his greatness.

He did not let the Presidency become too much like a kingship, nor did he let Congress overawe him. He cast a couple of important votoes just to make sure that they were aware that there was a check on their powers, and they could not merely do as they wished. He set the tone early on that the President would be the first in matters of foreign policy, walking out of a meeting with the Senate when they were discussing a treaty. The Senate could approve the treaty, but the President would negotiate it. That's been our policy for over two centuries now.

He allowed John Jay to negotiate with the Brits, and while his francophile opponents in the other party might not have liked it, it was as good as could be expected considering how weak America was at this point.

Those first eight years were a test. America passed because George Washington was in charge.

Abraham Lincoln - Like Washington, his most important characteristic was his ability to ably manage wildy different personalities, and to control a cabinet that could easily have controlled him had he let it.

He was a political craftsman. He was constantly attacked from both ends of his political party, but he caved in to neither side. He did not allow the firebreathers to take control, but he also sternly answered the wimps within his party who wanted America cave into the confederacy.

He never gave up. He did not allow his critics to divert attention from his goals. He also listened. He gave up on silly notions of exporting freed sloaves to Africa after meeting with black leaders like Frederick Douglass. Had he survived, the fate of black people in this country might have been different.

He was a brilliant orator, but there was meaning behind the words he spoke. He understood and appreciated American exceptionalism, and wanted to make the country's founding ideals to mean something to all people. He was compassionate, but not too soft-hearted. He had an amazing sense of humor, but was not crass.

In short, were it not for Abraham Lincoln's stewardship, this country would not have survived. And were it not for George Washington, this nation would barely have outlasted its birth.


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